Flatback turtle's whereabouts project
Flatback turtles in Queensland are under pressure, and there is concern their habitat is being impacted without us even knowing it.
Unlike other species of marine turtle, flatback turtles do not have an oceanic phase in their life cycle, instead they prefer the inshore waters of Australia’s continental shelf. However, despite having one of the most restricted ranges of any of the marine turtles, scientists still know little about the migration pathways, diets, foraging grounds, or health of flatbacks on the east coast of Australia.
There are many studies that show how marine turtles are being adversely affected by environmental change. With so little known about the flatback turtle, it is a priority that we identify their key foraging habitats and monitor their presence at nesting beaches, to gauge their responses to a changing environment.
Research is underway
Previous monitoring of the nesting population at Wunjunga Beach has resulted in the area being identified as a regionally significant flatback turtle nesting site. With the help of volunteers from the Queens Beach Action Group and Indigenous rangers from the Gudjuda Reference Group, the Queensland Government’s turtle researchers and WWF are working to understand the significance of the site, the status of nesting flatbacks and how they might be responding to change.
But, what we don’t know is where flatbacks feed or the paths they take on their journey between nesting beaches and feeding grounds – and we now need to make that link.
Nesting turtles provide scientists with the opportunity to study them more closely, and with our partners we’ll be doing just that.
Tracking our mystery turtle
In November 2013, WWF and the Queensland Government’s turtle researcher Dr Ian Bell attached four satellite transmitters to the shells of nesting flatback turtles originating from Wunjunga Beach.
In December 2014, we partnered with James Cook University and Gudjuda Reference Group to attach six more satellite transmitters.
Satellite tracking is one way to fill the knowledge gap about the flatbacks whereabouts and what impacts they are facing in the northern Great Barrier Reef.
WWF places satellite transmitters on marine turtles in many areas around the world. The information collected from the transmitters helps us to design better management strategies for turtle conservation, such as protecting important feeding areas and addressing threats to nesting beaches.
Knowledge of marine turtle migration pathways is also important to reduce interaction with recreational and commercial boating and fishing, and other coastal development impacts.
Satellite tracking involves attaching the transmitter to the top of the marine turtle's shell. Each time the turtle comes to the surface to breathe the transmitter sends a message to a satellite and we then know the location of the turtle and can plot it onto a map.
We followed each of the four flatback turtle’s movements during 2013-2014 –
You will be able to follow each of the five flatback turtle’s movements during 2014-2015 – see http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/?project_id=1064
But we are doing more
We can assess the stable isotope composition of carbon and nitrogen levels in the blood and tissues of the flatback turtles to find out where they have been prior to nesting. Stable isotopes are like an imprint or biochemical tag. Because stable isotope composition records the history of where the turtle has been, we can match this with the satellite transmitted data to see where they are going, and determine this elusive turtle’s diet, if there are one or more foraging habitats and their migration paths.
Sampling the foraging ground means we can also determine the type of habitat flatback turtles like to live in, as well as their diet preference.
Identifying the migration pathways and critical foraging habitats means we are learning more about our mystery turtles and how we can help protect them into the future.